Applewood Road, a trio of female singer-songwriters, recorded their first album around a single microphone. Last night they went one better, clustering around an upright piano at the side of the stage in the Exmouth Market Centre to perform their encore with no amplification whatever.
Recorded direct to two-track quarter-inch tape, with no edits or overdubs, Applewood Road has the kind of intimacy you might expect. Released by Gearbox Records, specialists in vinyl, it’s a record of great warmth and charm.
Those qualities were certainly on view at the launch gig, part of a short UK tour. Emily Barker, Amber Rubarth and Amy Speace met in a Nashville coffee shop in late 2014, with the intention of seeing if they could write songs together. “Applewood Road”, written the next day, was their first effort; the album otherwise consists of songs they wrote separately, or with other partners.
“Applewood Road” is a harmony song, and when I first heard them sing it together, at Gearbox’s offices a few months ago, the sound gave me chills. Barker (who I’ve written about before, here) is from Australia, Rubarth grew up in California and Speace is from Baltimore, but at times they can sound as if they spent their childhoods singing together around a family hearth in the Appalachians. The best work they do together — like their spellbinding cover of “Losing My Religion”, or “To the Stars”, which Rubarth wrote with Adam Levy, or “I’m Not Afraid Any More”, by Barker with Robby Hecht — mostly involves the three of them as equal contributors to the vocal blend.
There are other musicians on the album, just a handful, but last night the singers provided their own accompaniment, switching between banjos, an acoustic resonator bass guitar, harmonica, and Emily’s vintage Gibson acoustic guitar. Each of them also performed a song at the stageside piano during the three short solo sets that made up the first half of the evening.
Speace, who has made six solo albums since 2002 and had a song, “Way of the World” recorded by Judy Collins in 2010, exudes a calm authority that the other two have yet to attain. She was once an actress, describes herself as a folk singer, and has a voice somewhere between Joan Baez and Mary Chapin Carpenter, with the poise of the former, the emotional richness of the latter, and a soul of her own. Her individual set started with a fine song called “The Sea and the Shore”. As a member of the trio, there’s a presence about her that gives depth and focus to the whole group.
* The photograph (from left: Speace, Rubarth, Barker) was taken at Exmouth Market Centre by Andy Barnes.